Gap year students and cannabis

The DfE have published some research into the characteristics and outcomes of those who take a gap year before going on to Higher Education takers in the UK.

One of the things that comes out of looking at the longitudinal datasets is that those who take a gap year are more likely to have used cannabis.

Gap year takers are, on average, more likely to… engage in risky behaviours such as smoking cannabis.

The paper says that 8% of gap year students had used cannabis before the age of 16 compared to 6% of those who went into HE straight away.

gap year and cannabis

The researchers note:

Interestingly, gap year takers in the BCS [British Cohort Study] are actually more likely to have tried cannabis than individuals who have not acquired an HE qualification. It is also worth noting that the proportion of gap year takers who report that they have tried cannabis has increased dramatically over time, with just 8% of those in the BCS reporting having done so, compared to nearly 30% in the LSYPE [Longitudinal Study of Young People in England].

They also note that there appears that having a gap year makes no difference to the amount of alcohol being drunk.

Drug use after the  age of 30

The report also looks at what impact having a gap year has on drug use later in life and says:

There are significant raw effects of taking a gap year on probability of cannabis consumption; taking a gap year increases the probability of smoking cannabis at age 30 by 5.6pp, and there is a marginally significant impact of 4.4pp when controlling for background and education.

They also note:

There are very similar effects at age 30 on the probability of taking [other] illegal drugs at 30. There are more significant results for the consumption of any illegal drug, with gap year takers 5pp more likely to consume illegal drugs at age 30 controlling for background and education.

In terms of prevention this suggests to me that those considering a gap year may benefit from targeted interventions and that parents, FE colleges and sixths forms, and those in Public Health may want to consider how they could support the health needs of this group of young people.

It may be that the Healthy FE and Skills Tools provide an excellent way for colleges to engage with better prevention practice.

The Impact of Pupil Behaviour and Wellbeing on Educational Outcomes

The Department for Education have published research on the link between wellbeing, troublesome behaviour, and academic achievement.

The researchers say:

Our study demonstrates the importance of wellbeing for children and adolescents throughout their primary and secondary school education. There are critical periods, however, when specific dimensions of wellbeing are most crucial. For academic progression, better emotional wellbeing is a key factor in primary school, whereas low levels of troublesome behaviour and more school engagement emerge as significant in adolescence. Good attention skills, on other hand, are important for academic progression in both primary and secondary school. For school engagement, victimisation appears to have a greater impact in primary school, whereas better emotional and behavioural wellbeing and positive friendships are supportive in secondary school. School enjoyment plays a significant role in encouraging engagement in both primary and secondary school.

To be clear, the troublesome behaviour that the researchers look at does not include drug or alcohol use, rather they were measuring things like whether the child plays truant, lies, or steals things.

It could be that these findings suggest reasons for primary schools to engage in programmes like the Good Behaviour Game which has been shown to engage young children in school and lead to better academic and behavioural outcomes.  More broadly this research gives schools good reasons to support their systems for pastoral care and invest in Personal Social Health Education so that it is as good as it can be.

‘On the state of the public’s health’ – CMO’s annual report

The Chief Medical Officer for England has produced her first annual report, Professor Dame Sally Davies says:

Fair Society, Healthy Lives notes that only 4% of NHS funding is currently spent on prevention. Given the health burden attributable to risk factors, there is a clear case for arguing for this proportion to be increased. This is not new: the final report of the review led by Sir Derek Wanless looking at the resources required to provide high quality health services in the future, projected that a substantial reduction in costs could be achieved by an increased emphasis on prevention, coupled with higher levels of public engagement in relation to their health.

However, while she does talk about preventative services quite a lot in Chapter 6 of the report when it comes to tobacco, drug and alcohol services the focus is treatment and recovery rather than upstream interventions.  Interestingly she does call for much more focus on alcohol which she says has been a poor relation to drug services.

This is also reflected in Chapter 3 where she highlights risk factors for poor health including the abuse of drug, alcohol and tobacco, but again the focus is on over 16s rather than on younger adolescents.

That said Dame Sally does set out her reading of a life course model which describes the influences on health.  As you’ll see from the graphic representation (above) there is a strong recognition that we need to build skills and knowledge during childhood and adolescence which she describes as including:

all life skills (from social skills and resilience, to vocational skills), and knowledge gained through all forms of direct and indirect education.

From my perspective the way that Dame Sally has set out her thinking suggests that for those of us focusing on preventing drug and alcohol misuse still need to find a way of describing how we can make a contribution to better health in ways that will encourage those in public health to invest in the sorts of interventions we’re trying to develop.  At the moment there is some sympathy for increasing the role of prevention, but what is meant by that seems quite different to the way that we might think of it.

Effects of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

In the Good Behaviour Game (GBG) we’ve seen that providing classroom interventions which focus on general behaviour and attachment to school can have a positive effect on substance misuse later in life, so the research (described here) about the impact of school-wide positive behaviour interventions and support (SWPBIS) may also be of interest.

Probably the most positive finding that is reported is that pupils in intervention schools were 33% less likely to be sent to the school office for disciplinary reasons.  And as opposed to GBG, which had most effect on boys, SWPBIS appears to benefit girls but not boys in this respect.

They also showed that the earlier the interventions started the bigger the result.

Being bullied and risky behaviours

Research by NatCen shows that young people who are bullied at the age of 14 are more likely to have emotional health concerns, be misusing substances, and get in trouble with the police.

What wasn’t measured were the effects on out of school risky behaviours such as substance misuse, but another study looked the effect on bullying – something that has been shown to be a factor in substance misuse.  The researchers conclude:

The results indicated that SWPBIS has a significant effect on teachers’ reports of children’s involvement in bullying as victims and perpetrators.

What I notice when I looked at the website which details how SWPBIS works is that it has a process that is very similar to the Communities that Care; in that it isn’t based on prepared interventions.  Rather schools use the data they collect to determine their needs and are then given a range of evidence based interventions and programmes that they can choose from.

I also notice that the approach has been established by the Office of Special Education Programs, in the US Department of Education, and can’t help contrasting that with the lack of programme and intervention development by our own Department for Education.

From my point of view making the connections between the personal development opportunities for young people and the boundaries that schools and families put around children and adolescents feels critical if we’re to have a comprehensive prevention strategy.

The National Treatment Agency has an interesting paper out about club drugs which is the increasingly generic term for a range of substances that are heavily associated clubbing culture.

The drugs include ecstasy, GBH and GBL, Ketamine, Methamphetamine, and Mephedrone.

The data that the agency presents shows that the numbers of young people being treated for these substances has remained relatively stable over the last few years, but digging deeper it is apparent that there have been quite big changes in the individual drugs that have led to the need for treatment.

Talking with Dr Own Boden Jones who runs the Westminster Club Drug Clinic, and who is quoted in the NTA paper, he’s told me that the experience they’ve had is that club drug users don’t consider themselves to be the sort of drug user that could or should access traditional drug treatment clinics.

This, if true, may mean that the numbers of people in trouble with these drugs are higher than the NTA figures suggest, and that it takes them longer to access treatment.

From our point of view the paper Claire wrote for the Drug Education Forum on Legal Highs earlier this year sets out our best understanding of how to tackle these drugs in terms of education and prevention.

See here for a summary of Mentor’s views on Legal Highs.

Dealing in Stigma

I’ve been sceptical (to say the very least) about the value of using ex-users in school drug education, this feeling isn’t universally held, the government’s drug strategy for example sees a role for recovery who they believe should “contribute to prevention in communities
and schools.”

I’m concerned that these Recovery Champions are making the same mistakes as their counterparts in Israel (poster here) which concludes that:

A meeting with ex-addict might lead to an increase in readiness to use drugs. This is true especially for those who have already explored drugs.

The UK Drug Policy Commission take a slightly different view, in report looking at the stigma problem drug users face in society they suggest:

There may be worth in such approaches [exposing school children to ex-users] if the accent is on developing compassion and understanding: preventing social stigma that even young children quickly develop towards drug users rather than ‘scaring them straight’.

Which brings me to this paper by researchers at Oxford University which suggests that if we are going to go down the route suggested by the UKDPC that it may be important not to put all the accent on the positive.  They found that where:

a single negative encounter was imagined just prior to imagining a positive encounter resulted in significantly reduced prejudice. Furthermore, reduced anxiety uniquely derived from the mixed-valence imagery task statistically explained enhanced intentions to engage positively with the previously stigmatized group in the future.

For me though I still think we should urge people to take the utmost care when it comes to exposing young people to ex-users and ask them to think about how they will help those young people most at risk to develop the skills and values they need to avoid the harms associated with drug and alcohol misuse.